Back in 2011, FROM Software released a game that would change the video game industry: Dark Souls. The game’s combat was unforgiving, forcing players to pay attention and react quickly to enemies or face death. Dark Souls was brushed aside by many who called it “the hardest game ever,” but this summarization was unfair, as it ignored the incredible art direction, level design, and intensity that makes that game so special. Now, four years and a Dark Souls II later, FROM has returned with a new game. Bloodborne is very much born from the same pool as the Dark Souls series, both in unforgiving nature and wonderful design, but the setting is now one filled with horror and the combat has evolved.
Like past Dark Souls games, combat in Bloodborne is precise and requires thought and strategy, as each performed attack or dodge depletes part of your character’s stamina bar. However, compared to past Dark Souls games, there is a focus on speed and attack in FROM Software’s newest title. Shields are gone, along with any feeling of safety they gave, and are replaced with semi-automatic guns. Guns can stagger enemies if fired during an attack animation, which can then be followed up with a critical attack for massive damage. This mechanic rewards players who are willing to step into the line of fire and are able to react quickly.
With guns replacing shields, the best defence in Bloodborne is often a good offence. This idea is furthered by a health-regain mechanic that forces the player to approach combat in a new way. After taking damage, players have a period of a few seconds in which they can regain their lost health by attacking enemies. Running away from enemies and consuming a health item is still a viable strategy at times, but that same amount of health – or more – can often be regained if the player digs in their heels and fires off a combination of successful attacks.
This health-regen mechanic has some brilliant effects on gameplay, and because of them, I consider the mechanic one of the best innovations in the past decade of game design. In a game that is all about persevering through long, difficult battles, the mechanic adds intensity on top of an already white-knuckle experience. Players are forced to approach combat in a way that many of them have never done before in a video game – by taking big risks which make success that much sweeter. And in an industry where game design is often focused on either imitation or improvement, an innovative mechanic that presents things in a new way to players deserves a great heap of praise.
Combat is just one satisfying part of the game. The level and art design in Bloodborne is also top tier, with gorgeously detailed environments encompassing levels that wrap around each other in interesting ways. The aesthetic is a twisted Victorian world with a Gothic feel. Environments vary throughout the game, but landscapes are consistently breath-taking in their scope and detail. More than a few times did I take a break to marvel at the beautiful view placed in front of my character. Impressively, the masterful level design of the game often led me later in the game right to the same areas that I had been marvelling at a few hours before.
Character design is equally impressive. Enemies are either a twist on horror classics – werewolves, snakes, spiders – or are disgustingly creepy takes on Lovecraftian tentacled creatures. The sounds enemies make are often as discomforting as the way they look, the audio effects all the more highlighted by the lack of an ambient soundtrack (save for boss fights). The placement of enemies within the world is also worthy of note, considering the comfortable pace between combat and moments of respite. FROM has put thought into making enemies placement and paths appear more natural or organic, and it pays off, making for interesting encounters.
Bloodborne’s combat is difficult, requiring focus, patience, and strategy, and it’s the intense nature of fights that make success so rewarding. For those having difficulty settling into the game’s style, Bloodborne offers a number of aid. Player’s can call on either human or NPC players to help them, and levels are designed so that players can run around and earn XP with which to level, if they are having difficulties beating the area’s boss.
Bosses in Bloodborne are large in scale, quick in attack, and relentlessly aggressive. They each have unique move sets and often change form and strategy a few times through the battle. Players need to be constantly aware of incoming attacks because even the most predictable of bosses can deplete the character’s health bar in a few hits. While the bosses in Bloodborne are well crafted both in how they look and how they fight, there are a couple with some gimmicky aspects to them. The good news is that these fights are singularities in an otherwise brilliant game, and hardly leave any bad taste in one’s mouth. Rather, they can simply cause some mild annoyance.
While boss fights are the means by which to clear levels and continue progressing through the game, there are a number of other encounters with special enemies. These encounters are with NPC’s who wield a gun and slicing weapon just like the player’s character, and serve as a preview of what player’s can experience in player versus player fights, if they so wish. These fights with NPC hunter’s are awesome, filled with lightning fast exchanges of gun fire, counters, and criticals. These encounters feel different than those with normal enemies or bosses, and I enjoyed them greatly.
The story in Bloodborne is told implicitly through setting and item descriptions. A few cutscenes help round out the dark story line, but the story is generally not prominent. Bloodborne’s world is filled with intriguing characters and some interesting, and often disturbing, tales. Bloodborne’s implicit storytelling makes it likely that most players won’t realize the impressiveness of the world, but it has to be noted that every part of the world, every boss, and every item has a place in the game’s fiction. Even game mechanics such as levelling can be explained by Bloodborne’s narrative. The world built by FROM is as real as any in video game fiction.
Aside from the main progression through the game, chalice dungeons offer a separate experience. Their layouts are randomly generated, so chalice dungeons don’t have the same brilliant level design that the main mode has, but do have some different bosses and weapon variants. Chalice dungeons are completely optional, giving more passionate fans of the game an opportunity to face more unpredictability in enemy numbers and type. The game also offers player versus player combat for those that want to see how they stack up against others.
The only negatives against Bloodborne may be its small selection of weapons and the homogeneity between outfits. There are a lower number of weapons compared to past Dark Souls games, but each weapon in Bloodborne does feel distinctly different from any other, thanks to unique move sets. Each weapon also transforms between two different states – for example, a short cane can be transformed into a long whip. As for outfits, none are out-right better than any other, though certain ones do offer better types of defense than others. Whether it’s good or bad that outfits don’t really improve through the game’s course comes down to personal taste. Personally, it didn’t bother me one way or the other, and in fact I enjoyed being able to choose outfits more on how they looked than on how they affected my play.
The one legitimate criticism against Bloodborne is long load times, but thanks to a patch that came out a few months after release, this problem has become negligible. For those without an internet connection to download the update, load times after a death can be up to 40 seconds – which is inexcusable for any game, let alone one where you will be dying a lot. With the update however, load times are closer to 15 seconds, and no longer are a source of frustration.
In summary, Bloodborne is an amazing game. FROM has created a magnificent world filled with various detailed environments and macabre characters. The combat is satisfying and encounters remain intense from the start of the game to its finish. Adding to the experience are hidden areas and certain gameplay elements that create a sense of discovery and wonder. It’s true, Bloodborne is difficult, but it’s no excuse to not play the game. Pick it up, die over and over, and when you finally succeed, you will feel a sense of satisfaction that not many other games can deliver.